September 5, 2014
Another absence from this site because I have been in Florida, where we have been trying to help my mother-in-law fight off death. So far we have won out but that doesn’t mean the struggle is over. She is ninety-six years old and got severely dehydrated from a stomach disorder. So coming back has been hard.
Hardee County is quite hot at this time of year. The temperature has often risen above a hundred and on no day has it failed to go well into the nineties. Furthermore, it is very humid. So taking walks in the daytime seems ill-advised. We are a family cooped in a house, trying to maintain some comfort, and especially trying to ensure as much comfort as possible for the weakened mother.
She came to Bowling Green in 1933 with her family from southern Alabama. Farming on rented land offered little opportunity to break out of near-poverty for households in those days. In Florida, land was cheaper, and there were chances to get into hauling citrus into the North. They bought the large house I am sitting in now, along with land the equivalent of a large city block, for $250. There was ample pasture for a couple cows, and room for large gardens. They supplied most of their basic needs off their own small patch.
The mother of the house could read, but couldn’t write. The information about her schooling is sketchy, but it seems clear she didn’t go beyond the fourth grade. Still, she was an enterprising woman, determined not only to provide the basics for her children but to give them some things she had never had, piano lessons for example. And in some manner, which is hard to understand, she succeeded. She had nine children who lived to adulthood. Four are still alive, including my mother-in-law, who is out on the back porch now getting her breakfast.
She says often that she knows now they were poor, but she didn’t know it then. It never occurred to her that she didn’t have everything she needed, or that she had to feel in any way inferior to the children of more affluent families. She remembers her girlhood as a time of great happiness. Her mother made all her clothes, and they were better looking than the dresses other girls got from stores.
She did not finish high school because she married when she was seventeen. She and her boyfriend drove to someplace southeast of here, got married and then came home without telling anybody it had happened. For a while they continued living with their families. But the secret got out pretty quickly, certainly by the time the first baby was on the way. He was born when she was eighteen, and then less than two years later a little girl came along. She grew up to marry me at the advanced age of twenty.
We walked by the house she was born in a couple days ago. It has become something of a sensation in Bowling Green because for years it was a near slum. But then, early this year, a new family bought it and decided to fix it up. And they have done fine work. Shirley was so impressed she walked into the front yard and told the owner, who was playing with her grandchildren, that she had been born in the house and that she was very pleased to see it restored to decency. The owner thanked her and then said that when her husband told her he was going to buy the place she thought he was out of his mind. But after much labor the project turned out well. We didn’t hear how much they paid for it, but considering its condition and real estate prices here it had to be well under twenty thousand. In its present condition, if it were located on the same size lot in the section of Los Angeles where my daughter lives, it would be worth at least four hundred thousand, probably more. But then, this is Bowling Green.
To wile away the time here I have been wading through the first of Diana Gabaldin’s series of historical/fantasy novels being translated to television by the Starz network under the title of Outlander. It tells the story of Claire Beachamp, an English nurse, who in 1945 was on a holiday with her husband in the Highlands of Scotland. In a circle of standing stones near Inverness, she happened to touch one riven by a large cleft and suddenly found herself transported to 1743, just a couple years before the Highland uprising in favor of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore the Stuarts to the English throne. I have joked that by entering Hardee County I feel much as Claire felt. She was startled --and sometimes horrified -- by the habits of 18th Century Scotland, but after a time, in a way she couldn’t fully, understand, she began to be drawn to them. I have similar sentiments here, but, all in all, I’m glad there’s no circle of stones that might encase me here forever. The past had its glories but they came alongside behavior I don’t think I would be likely ever to embrace. There’s no doubt that given my thoughts and attitudes I would always be an outlander here. Still, while here, I can fake it pretty well. So I get along.
We are here, as everybody says, for the duration, determined to restore my mother-in-law to her former state of health. We aren’t certain of success, of course, and each day there are moments of discouragement. But no one here is in a mood to give up. And I sense that the patient -- gradually, ever so gradually -- is picking up some of our stubbornness. She had decided that she was in her final days, and it’s hard to turn the mind back from that conclusion. But she has started to laugh again, occasionally. We take that as a good sign. I told her yesterday that she can’t die because I want some cornbread and she’s the only one who can make cornbread the way I like it. She looked me steadily in the eye and said, “I will make you some cornbread.” She always kept her promises if there were any way possible. So I’m hoping she will keep this one.
Wish us luck, if you are of a mind.
(Click here to read the Out and About article about Louise Cooper's quilt show.)
September 6, 2014
The Johnson Society meeting is coming up on Tuesday in Vermont and it will be one of the rare times I have to miss attending. I’m still in Florida, with no definite escape date established. The topic will be language in its relation to thought and culture, which I consider one of the most important issues anyone can take up. Most people tend to be blind to the myriad ways language controls thought and behavior, and how it can be manipulated to lead people down self-destructive paths.
It happened that even before I knew the subject of the meeting I was jotting a few entries in my notebook that pertained to the topic. One came directly from speech I have been encountering here in Hardee County:
It’s difficult to understand people for whom words demand almost no attention. Sentences and paragraphs flow out of their mouths as though they were recorded scripts. The actual meaning of the words used is not a matter of concern. They are uttered nearly exclusively for the purpose of eliciting an expected -- you could say, required -- response. In such talk nobody gets the point that concentrating on word choice is a necessity of sanity.
So where do the scripts come from? The people who use them generally have no idea. But the scripts do come from somewhere, and they have been crafted for particular purposes. And the purpose of the crafting is almost never the conveyance of meaning. Public discourse in the United States -- and perhaps everywhere else -- occurs out of a desire to cause people to feel and act in certain ways. It is a manipulative tool. It is seldom a process of people reasoning together.
Recall that after September of 2001, the people who hijacked the four airliners began to be described, almost universally in the press and on TV, as cowards. It was an absurd designation. There were certainly many disparaging things that could be said, truthfully, about such people. But they not only were not cowards; it would have been more accurate to say they were the very opposite of cowards. They sacrificed their lives in support of a set of propositions they had devoted themselves to advancing. Cowards don’t do things like that. But, in the engine of propaganda, you see, they had to figure as cowards. Cowards in the public mind are despicable, and these people were despicable. Ergo, they were cowards. And not only were they cowards, all the people who thought as they did had to be cowards also. Public thought control created millions of cowards almost overnight.
If you get it in your mind that you’re fighting against millions of cowards and then, when the battle is joined, they don’t behave much like cowards, things aren’t going to turn out as you expect. This was the experience of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And it derived, to a great extent, from the foolish, manipulative use of language.
Over the past week or so President Obama has taken to proclaiming that the people directing the organization called ISIS are nihilists. If he wanted to he could pick up any dictionary and remind himself that nihilism is defined as the view that life is senseless and useless. That is certainly not the perspective of the people who wish to establish a modern caliphate. The problem they pose to the rest of the world is their confidence that they know exactly what will establish good sense and meaning. They are so confidant of it that they’re ready to impose it by force on the surrounding regions.
So why is Mr. Obama using a descriptive term in a wildly inaccurate way? It’s obvious. He’s not trying to explain the nature of the movement to the people of the United States. He simply wants U.S. citizens to be horrified by it. And nihilism, he thinks, is horrifying.
The result, if people follow the president’s lead, will be a fear that ISIS is a league of demons. And when you demonize anyone, or anything, you give it extra power. A demon, after all, is a servant of Satan. And Satan is an immortal force for evil who can never be vanquished. It doesn’t matter much if neither Satan nor demons exist. If a person in authority says they do, they become a symbolic threat that could well spark an insane response.
Why should we wish to confer on ISIS the terrible grandeur of the mythic monarch of evil? Why not rather see it for what it is, an organization of men opposed to the Western way of life and not particularly well informed about what is going on in the world? They pose a problem, of course, but not the kind of problem the president is trying to ramp up.
Calling things what they are not in order to manipulate the public mind can -- and likely will -- lead to serious mistakes of policy. But it will do even worse. It will teach the public that words are meaningless and thereby strip us of the ability to reason about how to diminish the dangers that beset us. Our reactions to problems will then, almost always, make things worse. Everything we do to improve conditions will intensify their toxicity. We will become our own worst enemies.
You can’t collaborate with anyone on mitigating difficulty as long as you refuse to use honest words to lay out your hypothesis and then listen honestly to the reservations that come back to you. If you don’t do that you won’t know what’s going on. Words are our tools for sorting out reality, and when we deliberately misuse them, as we tend to do often nowadays, we start thrashing around in a mishmash of unreality that eventuates in nothing but raw heads and bloody bones in the dark.
September 8, 2012
With the wider world seemingly descending into chaos, I can’t help but wonder what effect the disorder will have on small, out-of-the-way places such as the one I’m in now -- Florida’s Hardee County, with it three tiny towns, Bowling Green, Wauchula, and Zolfo Springs. I suppose one might say Hardee County doesn’t need to worry because nothing is likely to make things worse here than they are already. But that depends on perspective.
Though most of the people I’ve known and worked with during my adulthood would find existence in Hardee nearly intolerable, that doesn’t mean the people who live here share that assessment. Some of them are reasonably content. They have enough to eat -- not the best quality food, but enough. They have houses with running water and electricity. It’s true that most of the residences here would raise feelings of horror among the denizens of Beverly Hills, or northwest Atlanta, or Fairfax, Virginia. But people shape their household space in accordance with their own expectations, and their own sense of taste. My guess is that most people in Hardee County like their houses well enough.
By normal suburban standards there’s nothing to do in Hardee County -- no concerts, no movie theatres, no bookstores, no art galleries, no live drama, no lectures, no literary gatherings, no discussion groups. There is a single building called a college, part of a three-country regional educational complex. But all that occurs there are vocational courses. I haven’t noticed that the college hosts any cultural events. What there are in Hardee County, of course, are churches, more than you might believe, considering the population. Most of them are clearly what would elsewhere be described as fundamentalist. But that’s probably not how the members see them. They think of them simply as churches since they are the only sort of religious establishment they have known. The services in these churches would be fairly shocking to many U.S. citizens but that, of course, doesn’t bother the Hardee churchgoers, because they’re unaware of it. They are convinced they’re the core and center of Christianity, and that Christianity is the only moral force that matters. They are told every week that they are abject sinners, but their awareness of their sinful ways elevates them above all other humans. Arrogance always discovers ingenious devices to achieve its ends.
The center of sophistication in Hardee County -- and I am not saying this jokingly -- is the big Walmart store a couple miles north of Wauchula on U.S. 17. It is, by far, the largest commercial establishment in the region and the place where local people can find out more about the wider world than they can anywhere else in the county. One can even buy books at the Walmart, not an extensive selection, but still some books. I don’t think that’s possible elsewhere, unless it’s at the Good Will Store diagonally across the highway from Walmart.
I’m told there’s extensive buying and using illegal drugs in the county. Quite a few teenagers get caught up in the practice. Older people wring their hands about this situation, but they appear to think there’s nothing they can do about it, except pray. Prayer has so far not been notably successful. So drugs, and their buying and selling, simply have to be endured. They have become analogous to the weather.
So how might the disorders of the world outside Hardee’s borders disrupt life here? What could happen that would ever penetrate sensibilities of the people who live here? A thing we need to remember is that there’s not a great deal of attention that flows outward from Hardee County. It’s a strongly insular place. People don’t know much about the rest of the world because they make little effort to find out. The most highly educated stratum glances at the Lakeland Ledger, which is the only newspaper readily available here. And even it is not delivered to homes. If one wants it he has to go to a store to get it. The Ledger, as small city newspapers go, is not bad. Actually, I’d say it’s well above average. But you can’t rely on it for detailed reports about what’s happening in the Ukraine, or Gaza, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, and certainly not for information about China, India or Europe. Hardee County is about as free from outside information as any place in the United States. In Bowling Green, for example, you can’t purchase cable access to the internet.
The world will get at Hardee County in two ways. The national economy will always affect conditions here as it does any other spot in the country. But in a way, Hardee County is more insulated from national economic turmoil than most other American localities. It is already quite poor by national standards. I’ve read that it has a lower per capita income than any other county in Florida. Consequently, the monetary advantages many towns are in danger of losing can’t be lost in Hardee County because they don’t exist.
The climate and natural conditions will continue being degraded because Hardee has no ability, whatsoever, to protect itself from such changes. Already, a majority of the citrus trees most people had in their yards have died from the infection called “greening,” which appears to be wiping out the citrus industry throughout the state. There have been serious dry spells in the summer that make gardening on the scale that used to be prevalent very difficult. It gets hotter and hotter as the summers pass, and the summers last longer than they used to, thereby increasing the cost of air conditioning, which is already at ridiculous rates in some places. In short, nature’s power to support healthy human life is being steadily undermined. This, I suspect, is the principal way the outside will keep on squeezing the vitality of the county.
Even so, people will probably find ways to keep going. Life here will persist in some fashion, but the hopes that we used to think America offered to all young people growing up -- hopes of education, higher income, imaginative opportunities, increased and healthier lifespans -- will almost certainly shrink. And that, I think, is sad. But, as I said: it’s just a matter of perspective.
September 9, 2014
There was a letter in the Lakeland Ledger this morning which reminded me of a puzzlement I’ve had on my mind lately. Douglas Elliott of Haines City wrote to warn readers that ISIS is the anti-Christ. Mr. Elliott hopes that the rapture will come fairly soon, but until it does arrive we need be about the work of destroying ISIS.
It would not have occurred to me twenty years ago that my future would involve notice of so many persons who claim to believe in agencies working in the world which, as far as I can tell, have no reality. I suppose I might have thought there were people living in remote regions, say the jungles of New Guinea, who would seriously propose the existence of forces for which there’s no evidence. But I didn’t expect to encounter them in everyday America.
When I was a child and a teenager, I assumed I was living in an era of increasing scientific enlightenment, in which the reasoned pursuit of evidence would be the process by which we tried to deal with the problems requiring our attention. I couldn’t imagine that as I moved into adulthood mythological dangers would occupy the thoughts and anxieties of millions of my fellow citizens. Yet here I am in 2014 and there are people worried about the anti-Christ.
They are my fellow citizens. They are working to put pressure on the government in accordance with their beliefs. They honestly want to spend billions of dollars of public funds to fight against mythological monsters. How can I talk with them? How can we reason together?
When I raise this question with my friends, they generally respond, “You can’t; they’re nuts.” I don’t think that’s a very good answer. But I have to admit I’m not sure what a good answer is.
One might say that persons like Mr. Elliott see ISIS merely as a dangerous force, and are including the anti-Christ business as a means to spice up the threat. If that were the case then, supposedly, you could confer with them about how to protect ourselves realistically against ISIS assaults. The trouble with that approach, though, is that protection against a political movement that opposes behavior you support is a different thing than warding off the lusts of a supernatural entity. In the once instance you try to limit the destruction the movement can inflict; in the other the conflict has to be total, with complete elimination of the other as the only sensible goal. Negotiating with the anti-Christ is probably not a good idea. It is the utter totality of the anti-Christ concept that drives it out of the realm of rational discussion.
If Elliott were simply a singular personality, I wouldn’t be much concerned. I could tell myself he was a guy with baffling views and that there will always be a few people like that in the world. The truth is, however, that there’s nothing singular about Elliott. It’s unlikely you would ever hear him utter a single original thought. His perspective is derived from a group mind. Clearly, it was not conceived by himself.
That there exist group minds fixated by notions such as the anti-Christ is the explosive condition the world presents to us today. It’s difficult to envisage how a conversation could take place between those inside such a group and those outside of it. When encounters occur between people who think as Mr. Elliott does and those who are promoting ISIS, the only procedure available is massive slaughter.
World-weary cynics might dismiss distress over such an outcome by saying that’s the way the world has always been, and how it will continue to be. But world-weary cynics have nothing to offer us. They are merely boring.
I’ve heard it said that the death of old men is the only way problems get solved. Unsubstantiated dogmas go away only as the people who held them go away. Coming generations aren’t as likely to be beguiled by notions like the anti-Christ, so, over time, the demented advisories associated with them fade, and finally disappear.
I hope that happens but I doubt we can take it for granted. Name-calling contests should always be avoided but I think it remains worthwhile to point out the less than convincing nature of transcendental monsters. Surely almost anyone can see that appropriating time and spending money to defeat something you don’t think exists isn’t a reasonable expectation. And if you can get that point across you might also be able to begin an explanation of why the anti-Christ -- or any other bogey man -- doesn’t present itself to you as a real threat.
A serious fault of American foreign policy comes from the failure of the American people to grasp that those we call enemies are also human beings. They may be different from us in some respects but they aren’t as different as we suppose. And they definitely aren’t different enough to be viewed as soldiers in the army of unearthly evil. Underneath all the fervid, pseudo-religious rhetoric of international posturing lie the traditional issues of politics -- money, land, natural resources, power. These are concerns all humans understand, and these are what drive them mainly in doing what they do.
If we are clear-headed enough to know what’s actually at stake, we can resolve our disagreements with less slaughter than when we delude ourselves to thinking we’re in some sort of Armageddon. Mr. Elliott may not be capable of comprehending that at the moment but explaining it to him is not useless. And we should remember that persons seemingly more sophisticated than men like Douglas Elliott also get caught up in the blather of shining good versus total evil.
September 11, 2014
It hadn’t occurred to me until late last night that today would be the thirteenth anniversary of the big 9/11, the event that was loudly proclaimed at the time to have changed everything. When I first heard that announcement I thought that such an intellectually cheap sentiment couldn’t last for long. I guess that was the first of my mistakes about the consequences of that day.
I recall hoping that the nation wouldn’t overreact, since that would provide the attackers the greatest satisfaction imaginable. And I told myself my country was too sound, and too mature for anything that foolish. Another big mistake.
The thing that should have tipped me off was that many people I met expressed an onset of serious fear. Though what happened and how it happened was made clear within a short time, there appeared to be anxiety about a gigantic plan, engineered by thousands, virtually to destroy the country. There was no evidence of a plan on that scale but that, apparently didn’t deter many from thinking it was underway. There was, of course, an element of fashion in all that. To be afraid was taken as a sign of how concerned one was.
There was almost no notice of something that should have been brought out immediately. The policies of officialdom had made the attack possible. For years we had been told that if we were on a plane that was hijacked, we should obey the hijackers without question, and leave it to those who were competent to rescue us. Where that came from I can’t be sure but it was a directive that made no sense. If someone is either ruthless or crazy enough to try to commandeer a commercial airplane there’s no telling what he might do. The sooner the plane can be restored to ordinary authority, the better. There is risk in trying to overcome the hijacker but not as much as leaving him to carry out whatever desperate plan he has in mind. If that simple assessment had been in the minds of even a dozen people on each of the stolen planes, the whole affair might have passed with no loss of life. It was also completely incompetent not to have had securely locked doors to the cockpits. That also would have thwarted what happened. The pathetic feature of the attacks was that they were carried out by a small number of men with no explosives and no highly lethal weapons. That should have been more a cause for self-critical reflection than for hysteria.
Instead hysteria was what ensued. Within less than two years the U.S. government, with the full approval of the American people, had launched two gigantic invasions of foreign countries, which cannot be shown to have increased the security of the American public, and which ended up taking at least three hundred times as many lives as were lost on September 11, 2001. That does not speak well for our judgment -- not for the judgment of the U.S. political establishment nor for the judgment of the American public. It seems to have been the case that the only thinking that went into these military operations was the notion that since “they” had done something big to us, we had to do something big to “them” in return. We didn’t even have enough sense to inquire seriously into who they and them were.
Osama bin Laden could not have hoped for more satisfying results than what he got. And they were carried out for him mostly by us, which was exactly what he predicted.
We would do well to make the 11th of September each year a day of national reflection, when we think as carefully as we can about our mistakes and the pompous violence we have wreaked on innocent people without even a modestly thought-out reason for killing them.
It is, of course, impossible to measure the result of taking thousands of lives. But I think we can be sure those results will be immense. Nobody can chart what a ten-year-old boy who saw his grandparents slaughtered by U.S. bombs might do when he is forty years old. No one other than, perhaps, himself can know what’s in his heart. But it seems to me reasonable that we should do what we can to avoid creating boys like that. It’s not impossible that they could do good for the world but it’s more likely they will do ill. Hatred is not an emotion anybody should wish to foster. It does no good for those who hold it and no good for those it’s directed at.
The effect of September 11, 2001 on the American sensibility has, so far, been moral blindness. It has not been permissible even to ask why it occurred, nor has it been permissible to examine the motives of those who planned and carried out the attacks. Examining motives is not to excuse them. It is simply a process of trying to know where you are in the world, and to avoid blind thrashing.
The consensus in this country has been largely the belief that since someone did something bad to us, we were therefore excused -- apparently forever -- from having to worry about doing bad things to other people. The attacks set us free to do anything violent that occurred to us, without caring about the victims we created or the reverberations that would come from creating them. We were released from any moral bounds whatsoever.
The deaths suffered thirteen years ago were horrible, and we should remember them with sorrow and with sympathy for the loved ones left behind. But they are not a good reason for a great nation to go crazy. Nothing gives a good reason for going crazy.
Thirteen years is too long for a nation to engage in insane convulsions. The time is past when we should have stopped it, and begun trying actually to learn from what happened. I can only hope we don’t go another thirteen years in the condition we’re in now.
September 15, 2014
I waked up this morning thinking about David Riesman and his big book of 1950, The Lonely Crowd. I’m not certain why he was on my mind but I suspect it was because the terminology he made famous -- especially “inner directed” and “other directed” -- stimulates thinking about current political behavior.
I recall sensing decades ago when I read The Lonely Crowd, that the concepts behind those terms were even broader in application than Riesman wished to claim. But then, that’s a common feature in the history of ideas: one thinker introduces an explanation and others take it to areas the originator didn’t fully consider.
Riesman’s work appeared during the same period as Gordon Allport’s studies on personality. They both laid groundwork for theories about the importance of building the self, rather than adopting a self ready made by some social structure or another. That’s what Riesman concluded people had been doing for generations before the mid-19th Century. Earlier populations, he said -- to use the third and least well known of his triplet of personality types -- were “tradition directed.”
To be tradition directed is -- and has been -- the moral mantra of virtually all conservative movements from the 18th Century until today. To be good, in the mind of a conservative, is to hold the same beliefs and moral directives that your grandparents and great-grandparents did. To think that we might better grasp our psychological underpinnings and thereby improve our behavior marks a person, in the perspective of conservatives, as a spawn of Satan.
Nevertheless, in the 20th Century, inner direction and other direction did emerge. And the former became more idealistic than the process of concentrating, almost exclusively, on what other people think of you. Sanity suggests that there needs to be a balance between the two, with perhaps a dollop of tradition direction thrown in. But balance, as we know isn’t easy to achieve, and consequently many persons -- and maybe most persons -- have found themselves skewed in one direction or the other.
The disgust the public generally professes towards the political classes nowadays derives from the suspicion that politicians are persons with no inner direction at all; they will be anything the majority wants them to be because the only thing they care about is the approval of a majority, an approval which showers them with fairly lucrative rewards. If that were an accurate assessment, it would be bad enough. But burgeoning in the public subconscious is a suspicion even more frightening: politicians don’t fawn to the public just to acquire wealth and comfort; their essential sense of being lies in being flattered by votes. They have a hard time seeing anything else as worthwhile.
This, if accurate, would mean that politicians, for the most part, have no interest in governance. They don’t speculate about what a healthy political community might be. The longstanding disciplines of political theory, or political science, are brushed aside as topics of no consequence. They will be empty men so far as political accomplishment or protection against political threat is concerned. But they still think of themselves as big men because they occupy prominent positions.
I can’t claim to know how strongly this psychological condition operates in the political centers of the nation. I doubt it’s completely dominant. But there are signs it is present in fairly alarming degrees. The campaign of Mitt Romney for president in 2012 seemed to present us with an ego so ravenous for approval no policy and no principle could stand in its way. The people could not know what they would get with Mitt Romney because they had no sense of how fickle they, themselves, might become. A deep distrust of democracy lurks within the American population; few people have confidence in the good sense of other people. Scarcely anyone wants a president who would do exactly what the people clamor for. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than that.
If internal emptiness is on the rise, as David Riesman hinted, what’s behind it? What’s driving it on? This is an extremely complicated question and there’s not likely to be any comprehensive answer. Psychology has consistently suggested that personality-forming emotions are likely to be implanted early in life. It could be, I suppose, that increasing emptiness (a strange metaphor in itself) would best be explained by examining the recent history of childhood. It’s difficult to believe that the desire for popularity among young people has varied much over recent generations so if the comparative weight of being directed by others has grown it probably comes from a shrinkage of the inner stuff available for personality construction.
One might say that in the past it came from religious belief, and that as religion has weakened, it has become harder to find. But whatever the cause, the depletion of inner conviction leads to a surplus of adult infantilism. Gordon Allport argued that although adult motives develop from infantile drives, grown-up concerns can divorce themselves from childish desires and fears. He tried to concentrate more on the problems of the adult personality, and suggested that self construction is a genuine possibility. I have thought that myself but I have to acknowledge that the complexities of self-creation are more laced with threat than I like to admit.
Threat, however, rises beyond that when you consider uncontrolled emptiness. It’s hard to envision any positive possibilities in that development. I confess that the piece of modern literature that has struck me as most prophetic is T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Though I very much dislike the thought laid out there, it’s not hard to imagine a future which will dribble out with a whimper, avoiding the much advertised apocalypse by substituting something even more miserable.
What I hope most is that increasing numbers of people will take hold of the warnings of thinkers like Riesman and Allport and try to fashion them into plans of self-construction involving firm and distinctive inner cores which will also be compatible with kindness, compassion and vital conversation. Such an undertaking would be difficult, with no guarantee of success. But launching out on it would constitute a grand adventure.
September 16, 2014
There was a time when I loved hot weather. But I got over it.
Yesterday the thought came unbidden to my mind that moist heat is soul-sucking. That’s a fairly meaningless phrase, I suppose, but for a while I believed it nonetheless. I dare not say it in my current surroundings but I more and more come to suspect that Florida is something of a soulless place, this despite great swathes of its being enveloped in fundamentalist religion. And I don’t think this solely because Florida has elected a governor who looks like a zombie. I’m not claiming, of course, that he is a zombie. That would be hard for me because I don’t think zombies exist, except in TV shows and the imaginations of over-heated writers. But if it should turn out that Rick Scott actually is a zombie, I don’t think I would be seriously surprised.
People in cooler climes, obviously, elect jerks, dopes and twerps as their governors. But only people in climates like Florida’s would elect a zombie.
Here we are in the second half of September, and the thought of walking two blocks to the store, to get a pint of half and half, or an eraser, or a tube of tooth paste, brings up serious questions of survival. I did go to the store yesterday, and as you can tell from this, I survived. But coming back into the house, the thought of going back immediately because I forgot something, convinced me I would not survive a second time.
A couple hours ago I went out into the yard to see if some avocados had fallen off the tree in the back corner, down towards the cemetery. I took a plastic grocery bag with me in case there were more than I could carry in my hands. Not only were there more than hands could gather, there were more than the bag could hold. I went back in and got a second bag, and filled it to the brim -- we have lots of plastic bags because when you shop at the Wauchula Walmart, the checkout clerks generally put only one item in a bag, and, at most, two. I don’t understand why the hot weather forces this practice, but I’m sure it does. Anyway, the point is not that I filled two grocery bags with swelling avocados, or even that I got hot doing it, but that there were an equal number of the purple ovals I didn’t pick up because the heat had turned them to mush in less than two days. There they lay, festering, and I had the thought that if I stayed under the tree as long as they had I would start to look almost exactly like them. I am already dreading the advent a nightmare in which I will have become a rotten avocado, with wriggly little worms eating to my core, and a lizard using my crest as a lookout. I wouldn’t have a dream of that nature in cooler climes.
The air conditioner runs incessantly in the room where I write. This causes me to feel very guilty; the consumption of electricity is helping to deplete the world. But I’m not going to turn it off; the thought of sitting here trying to write, or to read, or even to exist without the air conditioner gives me the creeps. And remember, this is the middle of September. It went down to forty degrees last night where I live in Vermont
What I probably had in mind by using the term “soul-sucking” is that the heat permits only one question: Why? Why read? Why write? Why walk across the room? Why attempt to summon a single sentence to your mind? When you can’t answer those questions, the very idea of a soul becomes perplexing
Up Bryan Street, about two blocks away, is a fair-sized building called the Methodist Church. I have had several thoughts about the Methodist Church, but the main one I have is that on Sunday mornings it is air-conditioned. For reasons that are far too complex to explain in this heat I went there two Sundays in a row during the first half of September. I must confess I didn’t go for religious succor. And the main thing I thought about during the services was that I was glad the building was air-conditioned. The people there with me -- a fairly small number -- were friendly and welcoming. I couldn’t be sure whether that was a kind of mask or whether they genuinely felt friendly, but in either case it was pleasant enough to be welcomed. Besides, who am I to be asking a question like that? I think it was the heat outside that made me do it.
The God, who was mentioned rather more frequently than I’m accustomed to hearing about, seems to be an entity with fairly limited expectations. His single concern, as far as I could tell, is that everybody -- and I mean everybody without exception -- do exactly as he tells them to do. I shouldn’t have been surprised about this. After all the service was not of a different nature than I had experienced hundreds of times before. But most of those events occurred before I moved into regions where my brain was somewhat cooled, prodding me to think of questions like, why does he want us to do exactly as he directs? Where’s the fun in that? There was no explanation of God’s motives during the sermon; they are what they are, and humans, evidently, are not capable of comprehending them. The ways of God, of course, are mysterious. A coolness of brain might cause one to wonder whether they are too mysterious to remain interesting to creatures such as ourselves. But the heat outside the church doesn’t permit queries of that nature.
Anyhow, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m saying that heat is inferior to cool. I have no yardstick which would allow me to make such a judgment. But, perhaps, I have some vestigial right to decide that, for me, a bit more cool than Hardee County provides fits my essential self better. After all, I was spawned in heat, and it may be in the nature of things to take journeys away from the spawning place.
If anyone should happen to read this -- which is unlikely -- I beg you not to tell anybody in Bowling Green about it. I wrote it only because it’s too hot this afternoon to think of doing anything else. And I certainly don’t want to create any coolness between myself and the people hereabouts. I really do have warm feelings towards them.
P.S. I may have to rescind much of this because just after I finished writing, I walked out under the carport and a neighbor lady dropped by to tell us of a murder plot in the neighborhood. A man, allegedly as we say, was looking for someone to kill his wife, but he fouled up a bit because the person he sought to hire turned out to be an undercover police officer. Consequently, the plot was foiled. That kind of thing may not bespeak soul of the commonest sort, but it does inform us that heat can run alongside passion of a fairly dramatic nature. So, at least, not all things in the Sunshine State are somnolent.
September 17, 2014
Perhaps one should write not books but simply prefaces to books, and then let the bodies of the books be drawn up by the readers themselves. Flowing from that thought, what follows is the beginning of a preface -- perhaps the preface to the Preface -- of a book titled Reading Purely.
I've noticed that most people who read -- and some who read quite steadily -- have little notion of what the best fruits of reading are. They think of reading as something akin to pouring liquid into a jug. The reader is the jug and the text is the liquid poured. The purpose is to get the text into the reader, like getting memory into a printing machine, so that the text can be, partially, poured out upon occasions when it will benefit the ego of the reader to do so. To the degree that anything is created, it is only by the passage of portions -- or badly conceived abstractions -- to a wider audience. Persons who do this are said to be well-read.
A highfalutin version of this is often called scholarship, where a supposedly well-versed reader explicates what some more famous writer has said. Thus, there are thousands of books explicating Plato, or Kant, or Nietzsche. To be fair, some of these books occasionally drop in suggestions about application to modern difficulties, but among the serious scholars this tends to be frowned on. Careers are made by telling people what Thomas Aquinas said, not by suggesting how the reading of Thomas Aquinas can help you become a better lover.
Many other people who read do it as a substitute for watching television. This is not entirely a trite pursuit because taking words and making pictures out of them in your head is more healthy for the imagination than having pictures blasted directly into your face in high density technicolor (I realize this is a controversial claim but all I’m saying here is I think it’s true). Even so, this activity is viewed mainly as a means of passing time agreeably, and perceiving time primarily as a medium to be got through, a kind of test of endurance, leads probably not to the most noble use of life.
I am presuming to think about pure reading, by which I mean intense conversation with persons likely to be more interesting and more provocative than the average guy you might bump into in a supermarket. One should read primarily, I am arguing, for the purpose of making one’s own mind more strong, supple, and inventive. The product of reading should be a mind that functions evermore powerfully and effectively in support of constructing the distinctive self one has conceived.
One thing you have to face right away is that if you read in this manner you won’t be able to get through as many books as when you read for entertainment or for impressing people with your erudition. Pure reading is a deliberate process, and therefore fairly slow. It has to be interrupted frequently by exercises of one sort or another to develop the thoughts your conversation with the author has brought into your mind. If you like to say that you have read a five or six hundred page book in a day, then pure reading is probably not for you. One can, of course, run his eyes over all the words in a five hundred page book in a day, and come out of the experience with a general, abstract notion of what the author was trying to get out. But the lasting effect won’t be as stimulative as battling with the author over each sentence of the text. And you can’t do that in a single day.
I’ve heard people say that they enjoy Dickens, but they wish he had had a good editor who could have helped him cut the length of his books in half and still have got his point across. People who think this way haven’t begun to conceive what pure reading is. And that’s all right. Each reader has the liberty to read for his own purposes. But I’m willing to argue that if one can come to imagine the process of pure reading, he’ll find his encounters with authors growing more intimate, which can transform them into true friends. And a true friend is a precious possession.
Hinting at the nature of pure reading isn’t the same thing as showing. An adequate demonstration would require chapters laying out the details of engagement with specific texts. In other words, it would demand the writing of the book, a thing that may never happen if I hold to my notion of an independent preface. But if somehow inspiration struck forcefully enough to push me forward to a full text, I’m fairly sure of some the examples I’d attempt. I’ll list a few of them here to give an idea of how I would get started. The whole business might take about a dozen texts in all, each the subject of a chapter of about ten thousand words.
Here are some I know already I would have to include:
Beyond Good and Evil Pride and Prejudice The Waste Land Boswell’s Life of Johnson Bleak House Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography The Odyssey
Come to think of it, if I did just those seven, and expanded the chapters to roughly fifteen thousand words each, they probably would suffice to get across my points about reading. It may seem snooty to claim a form of friendship with the likes of Nietzsche, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Trollope and Homer. But it would be less than honest not to admit that I do have that feeling. These people, whether in the vastness and strangeness of the universe they know it or not, have helped me through dismal times and even more dismal thoughts. I don’t view them as being always wise, but they remain always friends, and wrangling with them about what they thought and how they expressed it gives me a feeling of belonging to something.
September 18, 2014
Last night, sitting in the front porch swing, staring into the darkness, I began to ask myself when Louis XIV died. I had it in mind that it was 1714, but Louis XIV expiring in 1714 would have been something of a coincidence. So rather than lolling in uncertainty, I went upstairs and checked the encyclopedia. I was one year off; it happened in 1715.
The new king, Louis XV, the dead king’s great-grandson, turned out to be only five years old, and not even the French were fickle enough to think a five year old boy could rule a kingdom. So a regent had to be appointed. The man chosen -- or perhaps I should say the man who managed to squirm into the position -- was Philippe II, duc d’Orleans.
In 1715, it was too early to predict that Louis would turn out to be a foppish numbskull. There is in every five year old the possibility of positive development, even when dubious signs have already appeared. Philippe, though, was thirty-five years older than the king, and had more than shown that any positive possibilities he possessed when he was five had long since drifted away. He was unfit to make decisions for a whole country, especially decisions that would lead to the deaths of many subjects of that country, which is only to say he was in about the same situation as most other political figures who, down the ages to the present moment, have attained high political office.
Philippe, however, was able to foul things up only for eight years, until Louis “came of age.” Now you might be thinking that a thirteen year old boy ruling a country is almost as silly as rule by a five-year-old, but if you are, you are thinking differently than the French thought three hundred years ago. The king, of course, had numerous advisors, when he was thirteen and for all the rest of his long reign. But all in all, he didn’t use them very well, leading to his general historical reputation as captured in the title of George Peabody Gooch’s biography: Louis XV: The Monarchy in Decline.
During the course of Philippe’s command and Louis’s reign, there were, of course, numerous wars. There were: the war in 1719, against Spain, over the Spanish king’s claim to a place in line to succeed Louis V; the War of Polish Succession; the War of Austrian Succession; the Seven Years War against Great Britain and Russia. In some of these wars, the French were allied with countries they fought against in others. The frequency of “succession” in the wars’ titles tells us that who might have a chance to become king in the 18th Century was a big deal. But the main thing we can conclude from this history is that for monarchies, war and the planning for war was the main item of business.
I don’t know how many persons were slaughtered in these wars (and neither does anyone else) but I think we have to conclude that it was quite a few, and that the great majority of those who died had no stake whatsoever in the outcome. The reasons they were willing to go off and get killed are complex, and require complicated sociological analysis, but, at the very least, it’s clear that the reasons given at the time, don’t meet standards of rational analysis. In fact, they scarcely meet any kind of standard at all. It doesn’t seem far off base to assume that they were mostly nonsense.
There’s a strain of thought which holds that human beings will inevitably spend much of their time and energy doing things that can’t make sense to subsequent observers. That just the way things are, and anyone who thinks differently is awash in idealistic sentimentality. I’ve never been willing to go along with that strain, even though I confess that I have no definitive evidence of its falseness. But to accede to absurdity as the ordained rule of social affairs strikes me as a a dissolvent of human meaning.
It seems to me that if we were to set a defensible standard of human well-being -- such a combination as fairly extensive and healthy life, activities that cause one to be eager to get up in the morning, the ability to find pleasure in the ordinary affairs of the day, mental acuity activated by imagination, possession of a sense of beauty, the feeling that one has sufficient control to construct a life, and a being, which can provide some satisfaction -- and then use that standard as a yardstick in our writing of history, and as a measure of our current affairs, we would be more likely to become engaged in something that could be called progress.
When I apply that standard to life in 18th Century France, I don’t think the country comes out well. True, there was great intellectual activity in France during that era, and we should give it full credit for its accomplishments. But it didn’t sink in very deep at the time. It scarcely lifted the experience of most French men and women.
The truth is, I’m thinking of the France of three hundred years ago mainly as a comparison to the world right now (you could do the same thing with any period of the past). Are we better off? I guess I would answer, “Probably.” Are we as different as we generally think we are? Clearly not.
The headlines in today’s newspaper tell the tale:
- Desperate Gazans Seeking Escape Feared Lost in Ship’s Sinking
- U.S. Airstrikes in Syria Raise Legal Questions
- Woman Executed for Death of Boy
- VA Officials Admit Link Between Delays, Patient Deaths
- Air Force Changes Enlistment Oath
- Casualties Up as Deal Is Rejected (in Ukraine)
If you think carefully about these, then perhaps you’ll have to conclude our distance from the Seven Years War isn’t as great as we suppose.
We should have learned by now that the way to achieve social change is first to define what is wanted, and, then, proceed to find ways to accomplish it. It is not to start with what we can and can’t do because of who we are. The latter is a program of defeat and an open door to corruption. For far too long, human societies have labored with petty questions of what can be done, rather than concentrating on what they are determined to do.
Louis XV couldn’t even imagine lending himself to that brand of social imagination. We remain far too much like him. Set our names -- Obama, Netanyahu, Putin, Haider al-Abadi, John Kerry, Kim Jong Un -- against Louis XV. Is this transformation, or is it not?
September 19, 2014
A couple days ago, right here in Bowling Green, one of my wife’s relatives announced that MacDonald’s has the best coffee in the world. That got me to thinking.
Taste, in the basic sense of responding to food and drink, is a bizarre subject. When one considers all the influences that affect it, such as region, social class, educational experience, family history, individual memory, and on and on, it gets even more curious.
Obviously, there’s no yardstick for determining the quality of one’s taste, even though a good many people think there is. One can believe that MacDonald’s has the best coffee in the world, and though that might not fit well with the judgment of coffee connoisseurs, it doesn’t make it an inaccurate stance. That’s because there can be no such thing as accuracy in taste. If I were to put my sense of things into the issue, I wouldn’t say that MacDonald’s is the best but, on the other hand, I do think it has recently improved to the point it’s passable. But my position on the MacDonald’s brew is no more authoritative than anyone else’s. It’s merely an opinion.
I say this, and it’s what my best reasoning tells me, but ... yet. If I’m going to be honest I have to confess that there lurks in my less than rational self a sense of higher and lower taste. I, for example, think that preferring soft, mushy bread to crusty, somewhat tough bread is the mark of a mushy mind. I think that always drinking chilled, sweet beverages -- though that was once something I did myself -- rather than hot, modestly sweetened drinks like tea and coffee is a sign of cultural lowness. It would be shocking to see Inspector Foyle of Foyle’s War sipping Coke from a 32 ounce cup. When one proclaims that he, or she, can’t stand spicy foods, I become fairly sure that person wouldn’t like the same kind of books I do. If one favors the taste of a hamburger over that of an avocado, I begin to wonder. Now and then I hear people say that though they have come to recognize that a Big Mac is not the most nutritious of foods, it’s still mainly what they would eat if they could stay healthy while consuming it. And then I ask myself what’s wrong with them?
It seems almost impossible to get such notions out of my mind. What does this mean?
One thing, obviously, is that we have associated styles of foods with kinds of people for a very long time. And so, nearly unconsciously, we conclude that the foods consumed by those who are viewed as refined persons must be more elevated than what construction workers eat. This is pure snobbery, not admirable in any way. And, yet, there it is.
There’s perhaps no class of consumables where snobbery operates more vigorously than among alcoholic beverages. Dry wines are more elegant than sweet wines. Whiskey is finer than beer. Port rises above anything one normally finds on a grocery store shelf. I, myself, really do think that Scotch is so superior to bourbon, that when I find someone who would choose the latter, I suspect a childhood trauma of some sort. Can there be anything evidential in this? I tend to feel there is, but I can’t claim to define it.
Another factor is the likelihood that an educated, economically well-off person will eat more healthy foods than typical Walmart shoppers do. When I glance at the loaded shopping carts at the Walmart store in Wachula, I am more often than not fairly horrified. Such sentiments have doubtless been strengthened by the epidemic of obesity in the United States. Though it’s not the case that there’s no such thing as an overweight rich person, the percentages among the economic strata clearly connect heaviness to low income. You don’t see many obese shoppers at Whole Foods stores. So, although preferring healthy foods to low nutritional, weight adding, heavily processed products is rational, there’s also a considerable element of snobbishness in it.
Everyone who is aware at all knows that a taste for the staple of my childhood, batter-soaked fried meat, is the mark of a pure Yahoo. It’s almost as low as gobbling up sticks of beef jerky.
The inclination to rank order things is strong in the human soul. Though it can lead to cruelty, I suspect there is value in it that makes us loathe to give it up. Is it not true that some things are better than other things, even though we can’t quite define what “better” means? If we lose all sense of trying to strive for higher taste, will we not end up in a morass of lowness (another term we can’t define but can’t give up).
And if we can’t say that Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch is superior to jug wine, can we continue to say that Hamlet is superior to I the Jury (after all, they’re both about murder and revenge). Could there not be something linking those two judgments? It’s hard to see how we can root taste out of human discourse, even though there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about it. It has been a part of our striving for many centuries, and to give up on it now just because it’s confusing, and the cause of much snootiness, might well be a gigantic mistake.
I tell myself I don’t like snobbishness, but I also have to admit in my secret inner mind that I don’t like low taste either. If that makes me inconsistent, and somewhat incoherent, those may be characteristics I simply have to live with, and try to manage, because to surrender either would rip out hunks of my personhood. There can be near-instinctual feelings that are so much a part of who we are that we have to leave some place for them in our being. We certainly have to guard against allowing them to create viciousness, and we always need to keep in mind that vulgarity can at times contribute a kind of vivacity to life. But good taste doubtless does need to find some remote nook where it can prevail at least in a corner of our souls.
September 22, 2014
I’ve noticed a social affliction lately which I suspect is waxing in America. In my own thoughts I’ve named it “nervous talk.”
It takes the form of ongoing repetition in an exchange which makes it difficult either to bring a discussion to an end or to allow it to develop. It’s the basis for a kind of scorn of conversation -- remarks such as “that’s just talk” or “all they do is talk” which implies waste and meaninglessness.
Much of this comes from the prejudice in favor of doing over being in the U.S. We’re a busy people -- so we tell ourselves -- and consequently any kind of busyness is superior to thought, which is generally defined as “lack of doing.” Conversation falls more into the category of thought than into doing and, therefore, is commonly disparaged. Conversation is merely a barrier to “getting on with it.”
The curious thing is that this belittlement doesn’t actually reduce the amount of talk; it may even increase it. What is does do, though, is eviscerate the quality of talk. Exchanges which rise to the level of conversation require thought, which is seen as another type of being which gets in the way of doing. A person who is thinking is not doing anything, in the common parlance.
Metaphors which enhance this preference abound. There’s praise for someone who’s “busy as a bee,” with no reflection that a bee keeps busy with no thought at all. Its instincts a kind of programming, form the engine which keeps it doing what it does. I suppose there are people who think we would be better off if we lived as bees live; the hive would be more efficiently protected thereby, the ultimate accomplishment for those see the hive as everything and the bees as nothing. I’ve heard people say of someone that “work is his religion,” and this is accepted as a strong expression of approval. There’s rarely any question about the nature or purpose of the work. As long as an activity can be called “work” it has to be good. “He’s a hard worker” is, obviously, one of America’s commonest commendations.
If you were to announce there’s too much work going on in the world, you would be considered insane in the U.S.A.
At this point you may be thinking I’ve got away from my theme about nervous talk, but I’m about to disagree. The link I perceive is intense desire to be seen -- in a good light, of course -- as contrasted with an interest in seeing. Ask yourself this question: when you walk into a room occupied by several other persons are you concentrated on what they think of you or on what you think of them?
If it’s the former, and I fear that’s the case with most people, then your first concern will be what you can summon to cause them to view you favorably. A reputation for being a doer, a hard worker, an active maker, will serve nicely. But how can this be created in this room of people you have just entered? You have to talk to them. But you want to talk to them as a doer, rather than as a talker. You certainly don’t want to leave the impression you’re talking just for the sake of talk. How to use a practice that’s generally scorned in order make yourself known as one who’s mostly engaged in opposition to that practice is a nerve-wracking problem. And when people are nervous, they repeat themselves.
When you’re at a cocktail party -- a gathering devoted to being seen rather than seeing -- listen to what people are saying, and you’ll realize it’s the same thing over and again. Cocktail parties make people nervous. Almost never does a genuine conversation get underway. That would require being curious about what another person was thinking, and then making some observation about it so that he or she in turn could respond. That might win you either approval or disapproval from the person you were talking to, but it’s certainly not going draw approval from the party itself. If you get into a real conversation at a cocktail party, most of the people there will think you’re either weird or irritating, and, perhaps, both.
Now, here’s a sub-thesis: quite a few people, and probably a majority of people in America, think that all talk is a form of cocktail party talk. It is done for the sake of attracting favor from a group. And that’s fairly hard. It’s virtually impossible if the exchanges last more than five minutes. Beyond that, something will be said which will either confuse or annoy someone else. Your favorability index will decline. This is why politicians cultivate the art of the three to five minute conversation. If you have an exchange with a well known person, you’ll probably come away thinking you’ve heard something significant. But then, on the way home in the car, you won’t be able to remember what it was. You’ll recall only the feeling it left you with.
One might ask, what’s wrong with talk of that sort? It gets you through the day, and leaves the impression that you’re nice person. What more can we want than that?
If you don’t care about developing your understanding, then there’s nothing wrong with it. If you know what you want to do, and doing is your whole motive, then talk is just like grease; it’s not like fuel. But if you’re uncertain about why you want to do something, or whether you should wish to do something, if you’re curious about the meaning of doing something, then talk of another character is called for. You will require conversation to help you think through your motives and your measures.
The truth is that one gets nervous in a conversation when he’s trying to get out of it. That’s when the repetition takes over. But if you don’t want to get out of it, if you relish the thought of its continuing, then there’s no cause for nervousness. The occasion has become a chance to develop oneself and learn something, and why should one be in a hurry to get out of that?
Nervous talk is a sign of a social morality which might be worth some examination to see just what sort of morality is being cultivated.
September 23, 2014
In Section 211 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche lays out the tasks for the philosophers of the future. It’s not going to be the sort of activity we have expected of philosophers in the past. They have been charged with explaining the nature of things. But now the philosophers have to become creative and construct the human values of the future.
They must tell us:
- That is how it should be.
They can’t, though, do all this simply by popping off. That would be absurd. They have to do it by using, thoroughly (and I stress the adverb), the work of the best scientists and the brightest critics in order to take the full measure of the human past.
The obvious question then comes: Can anyone do such a thing? And, then, the just as obvious answer: Perhaps not.
Still, it’s good to know what the task is. Nietzsche is saying either it will be done or we will perish. Is that a deranged thing to say? I don’t think so.
When you pay attention to the thrashing about in newspaper editorials, and books, and speeches, and panel discussions, it becomes clear that we humans sense a rapidly approaching crisis. It might be an incurable disease; it might be an outbreak of atomic war; it might be intolerable neurosis brought on by human crowding; it might be a depletion of natural resources; it might be a toxic climate; it might be pollution on an unlivable scale. It might be all of them together. In any case, a big mess appears to be on the way. And no one seems to have much of an idea of what to do. The politicians who get their names splashed on newspapers and TV screens continue pursuing the grandiose stupidity of the past. They don’t offer answers. If you think Joe Biden is going to straighten out the world, then perhaps you should reconsider.
You might turn to David Brooks, who in this morning’s New York Times tells us to “Snap Out of It.” By this he means that we should embrace the truth that the world is getting better all the time, and that just about the only human problem left (he doesn’t mention any of the ones I listed above) is a dearth of good political leadership. But this is “eminently solvable.” If you want to know how he would solve it, you’ll have to go to the Times. I don’t have the stomach to explain it to you.
If anyone should ask me to portray the nature of pure opposites, I’d suggest taking a look at David Brooks and Friedrich Nietzsche side by side. Should I need to think anything complex through, I’m going to go with Nietzsche. The recognition that, among those who have heard either name, a majority would go the other way fills me with something so dreadful I can’t think of a name for it. Nietzsche is not always right, from my perspective, but he’s almost always intelligent.
If snapping out of it isn’t the answer, what is?
I’m more than ready to agree that the world needs new and different voices (whether or not we call them “philosophers” doesn’t strike me as significant). What is significant is how they might assert new values (I don’t like that word but it’s not easy to find one to put in its place; neither “standards” nor “morals” does any better). Fresh attitudes concerning worth are desperately needed, but who can either create or discover them, and how they might be promulgated, are monstrous puzzles.
The notion that they will come from political leaders is irrational. There is nothing in any ongoing political debate with the intellectual force to shift fundamental approaches to life. And change in fundamental attitudes is what’s required.
I doubt we will find a single master of wisdom who can turn us in a healthy direction. If a turn of that nature is to occur, it will be forced by multiple voices who will not all say the same thing but will put forward a bundle of ideas that can work together. Everyone who grasps that this is the problem should get to work on it.
Tonight, in my befuddled state, I have only two notions that might be candidates for the bundle. The first is the sanity of having everyone concentrate as carefully as he or she can on those conditions that matter to him at the core of his being. There are other things that will matter, to some degree, of course. We all have little crotchets; we might, for example, prefer a green car over a red car. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to soothe our crotchets so long as we don’t allow them to assume a primary status. Early in life I began to observe people putting secondary matters before the issues that should have taken the first place. They did it, of course, because it was easier. But it always led them into absurdity. That, in fact, may offer a good definition of absurdity, which is putting something of secondary or tertiary importance at the head of the pack. To the degree people do this they become idiots. And idiocy is not the path to a meaningful life.
The second is the requirement to live joyfully in simple, fairly abstemious conditions. No one actually needs a twenty-five thousand square foot mansion in order to be happy. Telling yourself that you do is stupid. Chasing after expensive meals, expensive jewelry, expensive vacation resorts, expensive clothing, is even more stupid than that. The world can’t afford for everyone to be reaching out towards that mode of life. It will destroy us all. The man or woman who can’t sit in a simply furnished room and enjoy laughing with friends is already cursed, and will never be relieved. The lust for sumptuousness is pathetic. And as the number who see that it’s pathetic grows, our chances for survival increase.
These may not seem like very radical modifications. But were they joined to others that came from a searching of soul, they could make a difference. This probably is not the mode Nietzsche had in mind. But we need not follow Nietzsche all the way. We just have to use him. And if we do, the results he envisaged may not be far off from those we achieve.
©John R. Turner
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